Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Yo, judío: Borges Looks for the Jew in the Mirror

A few months ago I saw Ilan Stavans give a talk at UCLA. Today there's a piece over at Jewcy that he's written about Jorge Luis Borges' connection to the Jewish world. Stavans writes:

"'Yo, judío,' [Borges'] brave and unapologetic response to Crisol, pointed out, in the measured prose that was to become his trademark, a deep desire to find the missing link in his ancestry--the Jew in the mirror."

Lately I've been really interested in this phenomenon (okay, so it's not really a phenomenon) of non-Jewish philosophers and writers exploring their invisible/imagined Jewish side. There's Maurice Blanchot, of course, whom I convinced Jeffrey Goldberg to add to his Philo-Semite 50 list. And of course there's Bernard Malamud's "All men are Jews" statement. And now Borges.

I always say that Judaism is a mode of being (please bear with my implied conflation of Judaism and Jewishness here). But I wonder if these writers are getting at something else when they seek out their own personal connections to Judaism and/or Jewishness. I wonder if they are tapping into something that is beyond any philosophical, literary, or cultural articulation of Jewishness.

Then again, I suppose they say that there was a certain number of non-Jewish people present at the giving of Torah at Sinai...I love seeing these people emerge in contemporary society.


Casey said...

I love Borges. I'm curious about your statement:

"Lately I've been really interested in this phenomenon... of non-Jewish philosophers and writers exploring their invisible/imagined Jewish side."

Does that include converts to Judaism? Isn't conversion to Judaism much more common than it was even a hundred years ago? Before the possibility of converting, I'm sure many people must've admired the theology/philosophy and culture of Judaism, without considering converting.

This really makes me want to continue asking that delicate question: what is Jewishness in the 21st century? Especially in America? As I have suggested before, my understanding of Jewishness explodes in the modern (Reform?) era, when Jews begin to live not self-consciously as outsiders to the coming and going nations of Earth, but as a part of those communities.

In reading the old testament it seems possible (if not "clear") to me that Jews found their identity in resisting Egyptian power. And in the New Testament it seems clear to me that Jews (in Acts, for example) are absolutely locating their collective identity in their position of resistance to Roman culture.

If Borges was one of those writers who associated more closely with YHWH than with Argentina, his statement would make a lot of sense to me: Jewishness, he would have been implying, was simply having that transcendental/eternal perspective. Being spiritually nomadic. I could make the same kind of claim without blinking.

But (tell me): does that make sense in modern terms? Am I right in sensing that Jewishness in the 21st century is neither in collusion with nor in resistance to dominant culture and power? Because...

I understand that you'll probably say "Jewishness cannot be defined in the 21st century because it's not singular." But even in saying that, you're saying something very, very significant -- it used to be more or less one thing (didn't it?).

With the contemporary diversification of Jewishness (which must've been inevitable after Reform found its legs), I wonder if these kinds of statements (from Borges, Malamud, etc.) will make less sense.


David Suissa said...

Judaism has always hovered above humanity like an elusive bird. The more it has been hated and maligned, the more elusive and alluring it has become. Deep down, most humans know the Godliness of Jews. More than Judaism and Jewishness, it is the Jews that have been the elusive prey of the great poets. And the more we fly away, the more they come after us...